Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Continued population surge will squeeze resources

The mathematics of demography tell a dizzying story of where the United States is headed.

For the country to reach a population of 100 million by 1915, it required 125 years. It took only 35 years to reach 150 million in 1950. But then in only 56 years, the country doubled to 300 million. It hit that mark on Tuesday—with muted fanfare.

The 400 million mark—adding up births and immigration, subtracting deaths—will be reached in just another 37 years.

It's time for Americans to pause and reflect and consider changing our ways as population soars.

It is absolutely a Pollyanna delusion to view the future through rose-colored glasses—that there's enough land to go around, plenty of water, minerals, fuels to accommodate demand, and an economy to support such population growth.

Simply pointing to U.S. population density—with 84 people average per square mile versus 900 per square mile in Japan—hides harsh and unavoidable realities.

Because of the growing concentration of people in cities, crushing stress is being placed on systems and services—the need for more police and fire personnel and equipment, more schools, more medical care facilities to serve more people.

Consider the demand created just by cars. For every five new cars bought by this growing population, an area the size of a football field must be paved over with asphalt. With 226 million motor vehicles, Americans have paved 4 million miles of thoroughfares—enough, by one estimate, to circle the earth 157 times.

More people in more cars mean more sprawling cities and longer commute times. In 2003, motorists are estimated to have averaged some 47 hours of delay in traffic. Translated, that meant 2.3 billion gallons of fuel wasted at cost of $63 billion to motorists.

Each new person in the population uses a gallon of water per day—but food for each new person requires 500 gallons of water per day for farming.

Idaho can't avoid its own significant stresses down the road: Brookings Institution demographer William Frey predicts a new set of Sunbelt states, including Idaho, with record population growth rates by the year 2030.

The most alarming factor in population growth is the impact of a larger, older population living longer, and thus requiring an expanded health care system and more public funding of long-term care.

Public bodies responsible for planning for the future have done precious little to stay ahead of this population surge and the built-in demands. Instead, they've frittered away resources on wars and self-serving political projects that have left the cupboard bare and will mean agonizing borrowing in the future to deal with crises that could be avoided.

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